Tree species VKontakte (VK), Russia’s homegrown Facebook clone and its biggest social network, saw a whopping 30-fold increase in censorship requests from government officials during the eight-month period following the Russian military’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, according to a new report. The findings, revealed in a report by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, are some of the clearest examples yet illustrating Russia’s aggressive effort to use its ground war to justify even greater clampdowns on online political dissent.
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Prior to the Russian invasion in February 2022, Russian authorities submitted court orders to VK on average around once every 50 days, according to the report. That skyrocketed up to once a day following the invasion. The largest portion of the videos removed by court order, according to a sample reviewed by Citizen Lab researchers, involved depictions of the war in Ukraine. Those blocked videos included war footage, depictions of ordinances, and even talk shows discussing the conflict.
“Overall, the timing of these changes suggests that the ongoing conflict has dramatically increased the rate of blocking of video content for Russian users,” Citizen Lab researchers wrote.
The findings are of a broader report looking at differences in blocked content on versions of VK in Russia, Ukraine, and Canada. Of the three counties, Russia had by far the most limited access to content. In total, researchers found 94,942 blocked videos, 1,569 blocked community accounts, and 787 blocked personal accounts on VK in Russia. Many of those removals targeted independent news organizations and posts related to LGBTQ content. Canadian VK, in contrast with the Russian version, blocked less than 3,000 videos in the same period of time, the vast majority of which appeared to be in regards to copyright infringement.
“These findings again indicate that the aim of censorship within Canada is very different from within Russia, with the former being focused on copyright and the latter on news, current events, and politics,” Citizen Lab wrote.
VK, founded in 2007 by Telegram founder Pavel Durov, has degraded from a space of relative openness to one of Russian government control over the past five years. Durov, who was pressured out of his role as CEO in 2014 after refusing to hand over sensitive user data to intelligence officials, has since spoken out against his former company, claiming it is “under the complete control” of state actors close to Russian president Vladimir Putin. VK did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.
Russian censorship online isn’t particularly new, but the Citizen Lab offers clear insights into the ways the government pressures social media companies to remove content on its platforms. Unlike web pages, which can simply be banned or blocked by Russia’s top internet regulator, removing content on social media sites typically requires government agencies to seek court orders demonstrating a piece of content violates Russian law. The country’s increasingly wide-reaching, restrictive internet laws limiting users’ speech makes those requests easier to approve than before. Website and social media sites are also required under a 2021 law to try and block potentially violating content proactivity before they ever receive a court order.
Citizen Lab found that all but one of the 336 messages Russian VK users receive when trying to view blocked content cite a court order as the justification for the blocked content. The single outlier there involved a message with text reading “This video is unavailable in your country.”
The Citizen Lab may only focus on a single social media, site but it’s still instructive, especially in light of a series of bans and restrictions on US-based social media sites over the past year. Since the invasion began Russia has blocked access to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter—after it fined them tens of millions of dollars. State regulators even called Meta an “extremist organization” on par with the Islamic State after it altered its policies to allow users in Ukraine and other Eastern European countries to make violent threats against Russian troops and military officials.